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 Environment: Leonardo DiCaprio's Hour

InterviewsBy Kelpie Wilson
Truthout | Interview

As a celebrated actor, Leonardo DiCaprio has had many hours in the media sun, but mere celebrity does not seem to be enough for him. He also wants to change the world, and he has created a new documentary called "The 11th Hour" with that revolutionary purpose in mind. Concerned with global warming and environmental catastrophe, the film has its own action web site at www.11thhouraction.com.

The film is not about DiCaprio, but about all of us, for we are all actors in the drama of planetary survival. That is made clear by the banner streaming across the film's web site: "We are the generation that gets to change the world forever. Let's begin."

"The 11th Hour" is opening on August 17 in New York and Los Angeles. DiCaprio made the film with the help of two sisters - Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners. Nadia agreed to answer a few questions for Truthout readers. ...

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Kelpie Wilson: What is the launch schedule for "The 11th Hour?"

Nadia Conners: We are opening in Los Angeles and New York August 17 - then we go wider the following week. Our goal is to really push for people to go in the first couple of weeks because then the exhibitors will keep the film longer and other cities will play it.

KW: I know that documentaries are becoming increasingly popular, but how is this film different from Al Gore's, and why would anyone want to see another film on eco-catastrophe?

NC: Our films are totally different - we contextualize environmental problems so that you come away with a greater understanding of how and why we got here - an essential component to understanding how to reverse the damage that has created our problems. Additionally, we deal with global warming only for seven minutes out of 90 - the rest of the film examines the state of environmental degradation and ecosystem collapse as a symptom of a larger problem, which we see as the industrial revolution and the way our culture relates to the planet as a resource to be consumed. Our film is a journey through man's relationship to the planet - how we got to this critical point - the forces in our society that are stalling us, keeping us here - and the hope for the future. We focus the entire last third of the film on solutions.

KW: I watched the trailer, and it looked a compilation of every Hollywood disaster movie ever made, except that it was all real. Do you think those disaster movies that were big in the 1980s and 1990s were in some way a premonition of the reality we are facing today?

NC: I think on a deep level we know we have been destroying nature and we have projected onto other forces, like alien invasions in films, the very thing we are doing to ourselves. We have been living extremely out of balance with not only the planet, but with ourselves, so if cinema is a kind of reflection of our unconscious, then one could see we are in crisis for sure. The problem with a lot of these disaster films is that they play upon fear without delivering any purpose or meaning. What is all this destruction in the service of? What kinds of stories are we really trying to tell? Frequently, nature is positioned as the enemy - we are battling a volcano, a quake, a tidal wave, a comet. This idea of us against the world is something that has been perpetuated for a long time in human civilization, and it does not ultimately serve us - we have to see ourselves as a part of nature.

KW: You've got some great people appearing in the film, including Diane Wilson, whom I have interviewed. Gloria Flora appears in the trailer and talks about the importance of voting. I happen to know that as the supervisor of one of our national forests, she became a victim of right-wing politics. Does her story come out in the film?

NC: We interviewed 71 people for this film, and 54 people made it into our 90-minute cut. As you will see, the film is really a seamless dialogue amongst these specialists, visionaries and experts, who have been on the front lines of this issue for decades. Unfortunately, we did not have an opportunity to get into their personal stories, but frequently we selected people because of their vast knowledge of these issues and of how hard it has been to do their work unobstructed. For instance, we had an interview slated with James Hansen during the summer he issued his report to Congress on global warming. He was subsequently shut down or censored from talking to anyone - including us.

KW: The film seems like it will emphasize technical solutions to our problems. Does that mean there is nothing we can really do until science comes up with these solutions?

NC: We do talk about existing technologies as both transitional solutions and long-term solutions, but technology is nothing without an evolution in culture. We need to regain our citizenship - we have been turned into full-time consumers, and as a result, the infrastructure of our physical and mental society is in collapse. How are we going to demand that the administration - this one or the next - build green or develop better transportation systems or retool the wasteful processes of the industrial production system if we don't engage as humans on a political level? The technologies exist right now that can dramatically reduce our impact on the planet - but they are not being implemented at the scale needed to make the difference we desperately need right now. We need a societal movement on the level of the civil rights movement to take back the power we have lost, so that we can begin to push for changes that serve the greater good of people and the planet, and not just the corporate few.

KW: Two very important but often neglected aspects of the environmental crisis are peak oil and human overpopulation. Does "The 11th Hour" address either of these?

NC: We did many interviews about peak oil with Richard Heinberg and Matthew Simmons, but were unable to successfully weave it into the flow of our film. Even so, oil is still the subplot of our movie. We look at it on multiple levels - how it has enabled us to consume resources at an accelerated rate, its contributions to global warming, its impact on the tremendous population explosion in this last century, as well as the oil corporations' collusion with government.

KW: Where exactly does this film find any hope in the relentless disaster movie of our future? The tag line is "Turn mankind's darkest hour into its finest." President Bush said something similar in Minneapolis recently. He said, "Out of these tragedies can come a better life. And I, having visited with the people here, believe that not only are they committed to a better life, not only are they committed to turning something ugly into something good, but it's going to happen." I've got to say, that rings pretty hollow to me when I hear Bush say it. How is this film going to inspire hope?

NC: "The 11th Hour" is a journey - you go through hell and come out the other side. I know you will learn very specific things about hope for the "future," in that we discuss biomimicry, green economies, green architecture, etc., but I think the greatest hope comes from the outcome of experiencing the film. It is not just data. It is emotional, and when you come out of the theater you see the world in a slightly different way - you see your relationship to this place in a new light, and that subtle shift in consciousness is an incredible opportunity for new hope. As filmmakers, we would never want to dictate what individuals must do; that is ultimately your choice. We show as many examples as time on screen allows, but the greatest good we can do is to inspire new thinking - to take a step back and ask really serious questions about how we are orienting to the planet. So this hope we have in the film is real - it is bittersweet - it is not fluff or lip service. I see the world right now as having two realities - one of destruction and one of restoration - the hope for us is getting more and more citizens active in the areas of restoration. If we can inspire that, then there is hope.

KW: OK, let's get down to what's important. In the media, there's a lot of talk on the one hand about how trendy being green is, and on the other hand how most people are far more concerned about sex and status than being green. The key to engaging people seems to be sex appeal. Is Leonardo DiCaprio concerned about the sex appeal of being green?

NC: Being green has become trendy, which is not all bad, but we have to keep pushing information through so that people understand there is a whole lot more work to do than changing a light bulb or buying a Prius, but those were important first steps. Culture changes in a variety of ways. At least the ideas are starting to puncture the veil of traditional media.

Leonardo DiCaprio has been very close to this issue for over ten years - we made this film because we saw a disturbing lack of coverage in the media on the issues, as well as a lack of response from governments and corporations. I think this has very little to do with sex appeal or status, and everything to do with standing up right now and responding to what is the greatest challenge of our generation.

KW: What are Leonardo's hopes for this film? How will he, and all of you on the production team, measure your success?

NC: Our loftiest hopes are that we can help tip the balance - help move the problems of the environment to center stage so that we can as a society really start getting to the work of building a new world.


Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of " Primal Tears," an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of "Darwin's Radio," says: "'Primal Tears' is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family."

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